Derailments fact of life in the suburbs
Freight trains are part of the scenery in the suburbs. Tank cars rumble through the middle of busy downtowns as oblivious pedestrians stand by drinking Starbucks.
But just as trains are a fact of life here, so are derailments. An average of 35 annually occurred in Illinois on mainline track, a 10-year analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data shows. More than one-third of those mainline incidents happen in Cook and the collar counties.
That's not including the hundreds of derailments each year in railroad yards or sidings, which usually happen at slower speeds and don't affect the general public.
Many mainline derailments go unnoticed unless they tie up Metra trains or traffic. But other high-profile cases have caused unease.
• July 4: Union Pacific Railroad coal cars weighing 140 tons each derailed in Glenview; 28 landed on and collapsed a railway bridge and killed Glenview couple Burton and Zorine Lindner, who were underneath.
• Nov. 3, 2011: A Canadian National Railway freight train that derailed between Elgin and Bartlett delayed thousands of Metra commuters. Two freight cars that derailed contained hazardous materials, but none spilled.
• June 19, 2009: A CN freight with tank cars carrying ethanol derailed at Cherry Valley near Rockford. The resulting fire killed a woman in a car near the rail crossing.
"Freight trains keep getting longer and longer, and that raises the stakes for municipalities," said Joseph Schweiterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Center for Metropolitan Development.
"I'm not saying it's not safe, but when disasters happen, they can be really bad. Chicago has an unusually high density of freight lines traveling through most of our major suburbs."
Northeast Illinois has the second highest volume of freight traffic in the nation, making rail an essential part of the economy, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning reported last week. Up to a third of all freight in the United States originates in or passes through the region, and that's expected to double in the next 20 years.
Given the expected increase, does that mean more derailments? How are railroads and the government working to prevent them?
"Safety is a paramount concern for the Federal Railroad Administration," FRA spokesman Mike England said. "FRA's robust safety program uses a combination of oversight, inspections and enforcement to prevent derailments and keep the nation's railways safe."
A look at derailment trends from 2008 to 2011 on mainline track in Illinois shows that the chief causes are track and roadbed problems, mechanical or electrical failures, and human error, according to FRA data. Among the track issues were six cases of alignment irregularities involving buckling or sun-kinks, which are caused by extreme heat.
A preliminary investigation indicates a sun-kink led to the July 4 derailment in Glenview.
UP, BNSF Railway Co. and CN were the top three railroads involved in derailments on mainline track in Illinois from 2002 to 2011, reporting 96, 85 and 52, respectively. They also operate on the most railroad miles in the state: UP with 2,201 miles, BNSF with 1,551 miles and CN with 1,288 miles.
The government requires railroads to report all derailments causing $9,500 or more in damages, which means many minor incidents are in the database, UP spokesman Mark Davis said.
It's in railroads' interests to reduce derailments both from a safety and economic perspective, industry representatives said, adding that technology is helping prevent problems by allowing railroads to check equipment and track.
Such innovations include using ultrasonic rays to detect rail flaws, sensors that monitor wheel and bearing temperatures and lasers that measure rail spacing, officials with rail companies explained.
Avoiding derailments is "something that our safety team and operating team take very seriously, so we've seen great reductions not only with UP but across the industry," Davis said. "Industrywide, we've seen over a 75 percent reduction since 1980." UP has cut derailments by 32 percent from 2001 to 2011, he added.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth noted that the railroad's derailment rate in 2011 was among the industry's lowest at 2.66 accidents per million train miles traveled.
"BNSF's track inspection program requires that the tracks be inspected more frequently than the FRA standards require. Typically, across BNSF's main line system, the track is inspected four times weekly and sometimes more," McBeth said.
CN has invested more than $1 billion to upgrade its track, spokesman Patrick Waldron said.
"We've adopted sophisticated technology to improve the safety of the system," he said. "We believe we have one of the most advanced systems in North America."
In Illinois, mainline derailments dipped starting in 2007, although the recession caused freight traffic to decline around the same time. The American Association of Railroads reports that total units transported annually, including cars, trailers and containers, went from 29.6 million in 2006 to a nadir of 23.7 million in 2009. But those numbers are rising, with 27 million units transported in 2011.
Can suburban residents rest easy thinking everything is being done to ensure there will be no more Glenviews? Not everyone thinks so, especially given the latest freak weather occurrences that played a role in the July 4 derailment.
The tragedy caught the attention of lawmakers like Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is starting to ask questions about how well railroads and their employees are prepared to handle extreme heat.
In a letter released Sunday, Durbin wrote the American Association of Railroads, citing his concern about a rise of sun-kink incidents. "I encourage you to do everything you can to make certain your industry has the proper training, inspection plans and committed personnel to deal with excessive weather events," he wrote.
"Even though we're getting relief in terms of 80 and 90 degree weather, there's still a lot of summer ahead of us," Durbin said Friday.
A signalman noticed a problem with the track July 4 in Glenview, when temperatures hit 102 degrees, and called in an expert to advise him, but the train left the rails in the meantime, UP officials said.
"I think the issue comes down to detecting and acting on suspicion that the track was becoming deformed on this hot day," Northwestern University transportation professor Ian Savage said.
The FRA issued an advisory to railroads July 9, recommending that they evaluate whether employees entrusted with track inspections are up to speed on buckling issues, danger areas and speed restrictions. The agency noted that four heat-related derailments involving coal trains occurred nationwide between June 23 and July 4. In addition to the July 4 Glenview derailment, these included another UP coal train derailment June 23 in Wyoming and two BNSF coal trains that derailed July 2 in Washington state and July 4 in Texas.
It's logical to think that knowledgeable employees trained to spot anomalies could head off calamities.
The trouble is that "there's not a lot of railroad manpower on the ground to keep an eye on potential problems -- the railroads find themselves spread pretty thin these days," Schweiterman said. "You used to have station agents, people that walked the tracks. Communities don't dialogue with railroads the way they used to."
Also spread thin are federal and state railroad inspectors.
"I think it reiterates the problem we have with our infrastructure ... the difficulty of getting money to either inspect or provide services," Northbrook Mayor Sandy Frum said. The July 4 derailment occurred at Northbrook's border.
In fact, the FRA relies on railroads to report accidents and investigate them, a reality that surprised many in the wake of the Glenview disaster.
"I was somewhat surprised there was so little oversight. So much of it is self-policing," Frum said.
In the Glenview case, the FRA is investigating along with UP, although attorneys representing the Lindner family asked the National Transportation Safety Board to take over, arguing that the railroad was biased and the agency understaffed.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said, "Although the NTSB has not opened an investigation at this time, our investigators continue to gather information about the accident and are closely monitoring the FRA's investigation."
Savage said, "It strikes me that the FRA is not exactly a neutral party given the fact the FRA sets track standards and inspection routines for trains."
Overall, "the industry can always do better," said Jim Wilson, a Naperville railroad consultant. "I think, nationally, if you look at safety statistics for the last three years, safety has improved in the United States for all the railroads."
It's possible the deaths of the Lindners could lead to changes in how railroads deal with extreme heat.
"In the history of train crashes, certain incidents become so big, you look back and say, 'This was a big turning point,'" said Savage, citing the 1995 school bus crash in Fox River Grove that killed seven students and the 2008 commuter/freight train collision in Chatsworth, Calif., that left 25 dead.
"Whether we'll look back in 20 years and say this was a big turning point -- I don't know."